Home. The subject has an edge to it just now for Spalding Gray, one it didn’t have six months ago. Although the gods of irony could not be consulted by the time we went to press, their handiwork here is unmistakable. Saturday night at N.C. State’s Stewart Theatre, Gray is scheduled to perform his most recent autobiographical monologue, Morning, Noon and Night. For those accustomed to the epic wanderings of his previous dispatches like the landmark Swimming to Cambodia, this new work will be a definite departure, an in-depth exploration of–domesticity.It’s Oct. 8, 1997, a Wednesday in late autumn, a fair day on Long Island, and our odd Odysseus has found, in some sense, his most unlikely destination of all. Gray, 56 years old, has bought a house with companion and manager Kathie Russo, in a small harbor town where they’re raising three children. The hours progress, and the kids go off to school while their parents work around the house and spend time with the baby, 9-month-old Theo. Morning, Noon and Night details, with poetic precision, the events of an average day at home, at last.
Home means something very different now to Gray, for a simple reason: It’s a place he hasn’t been in quite some time. Oh, the family’s still together. But something’s changed in him. At least for now, home’s not home anymore.
The effects of this exile are apparent over breakfast in a cozy Soho café. Gray looks rough, with a stubbly day-growth beard, and an unruly mane of silver-white hair, his trademark flannel plaid shirt covered by a dingy gray sweater and an insubstantial scarf. In conversation he starts off fundamentally pre-occupied, distracted. At first this is easy to write off as a “morning after”: The night before was spent in a late-night session with presenters from across the country who’ll be booking him for tour dates in the coming year.
That’s before he starts talking about the car crash that nearly took his life last June. Before it becomes apparent that his hands won’t stop shaking, and before the onset of a barely stifled anxiety attack. It’s also before he discusses the witchcraft he suspects he’s the victim of, and before he explains what all these have to do with the losses he deals with now.
On a sunny Tuesday morning in January, over a bowl of hot oatmeal he just picks at, Spalding Gray cautiously begins to talk about a dislocated life.
“Recently, I’ve dried up, because I’ve had three traumas in my life that didn’t lend themselves to story,” he says. “Not yet, anyway.”
The first was an automobile accident in Ireland, last June. On their way back from a birthday celebration, a veterinarian’s van hit the car Gray and Russo were riding in. The aftermath included a stainless-steel plate in his hip, a “dropped” right foot, nerve damage, and a five and a half hour cranial operation to repair a fractured skull, resulting in three weeks in a hospital, and much of the summer convalescing on pain killers. He has only tentatively begun to deal with this in his work, in a preamble to Swimming to Cambodia.
“But the story I can’t tell, because I don’t understand it, is that I sold the house,” he says. “The beautiful house in Morning, Noon and Night.”
For five years, Gray’s paradise had a fixed address: 74 Madison St., Sag Harbor, N.Y. A green, three-story traditional house built in the 1880s, about a block and a half south of the village’s business section, not far from the schools. The neighborhood was still upscale, but more informal than the Hamptons, and with “the best five and dime in the whole wide world,” according to realtor Jan Page, who sold him the house.
No doubt it’s significant that an itinerant storyteller with an admitted “Ishmael complex” would choose a small historic whaling village as a place to settle down. When reading Morning, Noon and Night, one gets the sense that, for certain people, there are only so many places in the world where home is actually possible. Gray’s sense of relief at actually finding one radiates throughout his narrative.
But he sold the house this fall, after the accident. He still can’t say exactly why. Sure, the kids were growing up, and Russo felt they needed a yard, more room than the house in town. “But still, I can’t talk about it because I don’t understand how it happened,” Gray says. “All I can say is that it was a mistake, and I don’t have a story about that. So that’s kind of shut me down.”
And there is a third trauma he is dealing with, which happened Sept. 11. For Gray, a lifelong witness and a strangely poetic journalist in his own right, the worst thing about the World Trade Center atrocity was that he was nowhere near ground zero or its aftermath. “I was still on crutches, and I missed it, all.
“I should have been there,” he says. “I missed the story. So I feel that there’s some vacancies in my life just now.”
On Sept. 11, Gray was moving into his family’s new house instead. Through a trick of time, reduced physical function leads to reduced professional function, and a lost chance to witness is linked with a lost sense of home. The connections haunt him as we speak.
“After the accident I lost my timing. In everything: the sale of the house, not being there on 9/11 to witness the care and heroism and everything else that went on there. I’m missing that. My witness-self is out of sync with events, and I’m witnessing that out-of-syncness. Actually, I’m not witnessing it, I’m living it. And it’s quite hellish.”
Gray says that he betrayed his sons by selling the house. “They don’t miss it, but I feel it’s a betrayal because I betrayed something in me, in my soul. Because it was a spiritual sanctuary for me. I’ve always seen myself as Ishmael, and I’ve always seen that house as Ishmael’s house. Now I’m afraid we’ve moved to Ahab’s house.” In yet another twist by the gods of irony, the new place is a whaling captain’s house, one mile out of town.
Given these circumstances, Morning, Noon and Night has become a record of a place Gray can’t return to. “It’s hard for me to do the monologue now,” he notes. “What was an invocation is now something of a benediction. I didn’t know that that would happen. I would give anything to turn the clock back, you know, and be back in that time. And I do turn it back by doing the monologue.”
The newborn Theo’s 5 now, Forrest is 9 and Marissa is a teenager. Gray says they’ve all become more of what they were in the monologue. Forrest is more interior, more intellectual, and more protective of his father. Theo’s become the daredevil of the family. Marissa’s quick and smart, doing well in private school. “But Forrest is the center and the heart of the family,” Gray adds. “He has a great concern for everyone, reaching out and trying to keep balance.”
The chill these words send down the listener’s spine grows stronger a few minutes later when he tries to work through the recent losses. His thoughts turn to sabotage, and the possibility of unsympathetic magic. “I needed to stay in that house. And something,” he rasps, “got me out of it.”
At first he dismisses it as a fantasy. Finally he confides, “There was a woman who was claiming to be doing witchcraft on my house. I found out later that she was a witch. And a real estate agent. I don’t know if she influenced me to want to buy the other house. But when I had the accident in Ireland, the realtor who sold the house? She was in the car with me.”
Now he worries about the power of stories–not only their ability to heal, but their capacity to make the teller vulnerable. Morning, Noon and Night ends with the image of Gray suspended above Forrest, not able to touch him, an image Gray says is hell for him. “Now when I say that, openly and to the public, I worry that I’m opening myself up to someone to do, you know, witchcraft.” His voice grows unsure. “I don’t know. I don’t dwell on that a lot because it would make me crazy.”
Nor are all physical troubles in the past. Several weeks ago, Gray was diagnosed with melanoma, and surgeons removed cancerous skin the week before our interview. “All these things are like the furies, like plagues. They’re like someone said, ‘let’s curse him just a little bit with these.’
“I was always serendipitous about accidents,” Gray notes. “Both children were accidents. But this is different. My accidental life has caught up with me.”
enre theorist Janet Gunn has devoted much of her career to studying autobiographical accounts of physical trauma. When she considers Gray’s story, she notes that our bodies are our first shelter, and when they’re injured, that shelter is suddenly removed. After trauma, people can feel homeless in their own bodies. After what Gunn calls “the loss of being able to trust the world any longer,” feelings of schism and discontinuity can result. So it’s telling that in his new preamble Gray observes, “I still keep thinking that I’m not me. That the Spalding Gray who was there just seconds before the accident will soon come back.”With Gray, almost no sooner had one fundamental shelter, his body, been breached when another significant one was removed: the house in which he found home at last. By conversation’s end, the loss of one has become something of a metaphor for the other.
It also bears noting that if Gray was not in New York on Sept. 11, neither was he in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. But that absence did not prevent him from creating a landmark work of art and conscience.
It would be nice to think he realizes these things. But on this morning it appears he’s doing well to keep his head above water. Call it the second swimming, and reflect on the irony that once more puts him at the center of the zeitgeist, undergoing profound post-traumatic stress in a world that’s doing much the same.